Triple Bottom-Line Social Enterprise Tackles India’s Waste Disposal Crisis

Like many of the world’s developing countries, India suffers from a waste disposal problem. This issue made headlines a few months ago when workers and waste collectors were accidentally exposed to radiation emanating from toxic waste in Delhi. Thus far, no policy has been adopted to confront the ever-increasing mounds of often hazardous garbage accumulating in and around India’s urban areas. Instead, India has been satisfied to let its informal economy address this problem.

It is estimated that India is home to over one million people who earn a livelihood picking through massive informal garbage dumps and selling anything of value that they find. Exposed to all manner of toxic chemicals and poisons, these aptly-dubbed “rag-pickers” work through the night, sleeping next to trash heaps when exhaustion finally overtakes them. According to a study by the Stree Mukti Sangathan, 85 percent of rag-pickers in Mumbai are women, ten percent are men and five percent are children. A shocking 98 percent are illiterate, a grim confirmation that these people have been ignored and forgotten by a government that lacks the infrastructure to clean up after itself.

Conserve India, launched in 1998 by husband and wife Shalabh and Anita Ahuja, is a non-governmental organization that seeks to “reduce India's mountain of waste, improve energy efficiency, and help some of Delhi's poorest out of the city's slums,” according to the organization’s website. Conserve India utilizes an innovative upcycling (as opposed to recycling) technique. The organization takes discarded waste – polythene bags, rubber from old truck tires, saris and old denims – to create Handmade Recycled Plastic (RHP). RHP is used to make fashion forward bags and accessories through a process developed specifically to be optimally energy efficient and eliminate the use of polluting dyes and chemicals.

While pursuing its environmental objectives through upcycling, Conserve India pursues a third bottom-line by giving rag-pickers the tools they require to improve their lives and support their families. The average rag-picker on India’s streets manages to earn around $25 a month, while a rag-picker who collects waste for Conserve India earns around $70 a month – a near three-fold increase. Furthermore, Conserve India uses its resources to bring attention to the plight of India’s rag-pickers. For example, the organization started Recognition for Ragpickers, a campaign that is lobbying Delhi’s government to create an official register for the city’s some 150,000 rag-pickers and grant them the right to obtain a fair wage for their essential service. The organization also provides training to its employees and supports schools in the slums in which many of its employees live.

Conserve India has collaborated with experienced designers to create hand bags, wallets, belts and shoes that are available in stores in the United States, Japan and Europe. Their merchandise can also be purchased online through the Conserveshop. Like many fair trade fashion social enterprises, Conserve India offers products that are fashionable, address pressing environmental issues and help one of the world’s most underserved populations. You can check out Conserve India online and conserveindia.org.